The internet can be a great resource for the church musician - for pianists, organists, worship leaders and choir directors. You’ll often find out-of-print works that are hard to find elsewhere. Unfortunately, many people have the impression that once a piece of music is out of print, it’s fair game to make copies. This is not true
Take some time to educate yourself about U.S. copyright laws and requirements. The copyright law is very clear on copying music. If you do not have express permission from the rightful owner of the song, you can not legally make a copy.
The [copyright] law provides for the owner of a copyright to recover damages ranging from $500 to $100,000 per copyright infringed, and if willful infringement for commercial advantage and private financial gain is proved, criminal fines of up to $250,000 and/or five years. imprisonment, or both.
(from the Music Publisher’s Association of the United States website).
You can get some good basic information about copyright laws on the internet fairly easily. Do a search for:
If you want to make copies of a copyrighted piece of music, you need to contact the Publisher first. Many publishers are agreeable, but permission must be asked prior to copying. Usually, the Publisher will charge a fee per copy for this right, and many publishers require that you have an original
piece of the music available prior to beginning the process.
It may be difficult to track down a publisher of older music, since publishing companies have closed up, or been purchased by other companies. The Music Publisher’s Association has a Copyright Search
page in their Copyright Resource center that is very helpful.
If your church has photocopies of music in their Music Library files, please encourage them to destroy these copies immediately and acquire them legally.
What about Public Domain?
Public domain means that the copyright protection has expired and therefore anyone can use those works in any way. If the music doesn’t have a copyright notice, the song may be in public domain. Again, it is your responsibility to do some checking to make sure. Cornell University has a very helpful Public Domain Chart
Copyrights are protected for the life of the composer, plus 70 years (for works created on 1/1/78 and after). Copyright on these works can be renewed, for an additional 75 year period from the date the copyright was initially secured.